We were cloaked in darkness, 50 yards off her family’s desolate country road. Could anyone have seen us from her house, 30 feet behind me? I wasn’t sure. I was afraid of getting caught, but that was part of the deal with teenage love. I was always afraid of getting caught.
“Cari” straddled my right leg as I sat on the edge of a bench shrouded in shrubbery in her front yard, our lips and tongues entwined, my hands wandering. This was a new technique for us, my knee meeting her intimate parts.
“I want to make love with you, Jesse,” she whispered.
With. She had said with. Not to, like she just wanted to please me or be pleased, but with, like she wanted a real connection, a melding of spirits. She always wanted more from me: more hugs, more notes, more sweet words.
“Well, you know, you’re a lot more stimulated than I am,” I said, in that holier-than-thou tone of mine.
Stimulated, as though everything I knew I had learned in my freshman biology class. She was a good girl, who grew up in fundamentalist churches just like me. Maybe it was a difference between her, the charismatic, and me, the Baptist, but I had learned that my body was something I could and should control. “We’re like a pretzel,” she’d say as we cuddled after a nighttime make-out session. I thought we had an unstated rule that sex was off limits. That grand illusion came crashing down around me.
“I think you just need to calm down,” I prodded, for good measure.
She had poured out every drop of love and desire from her 17-year-old soul, and all I could offer in return was moralism.
I can’t remember the hurt on her face.
When I was age 9, an older friend had wanted to try and have sex and wanted me to try it too. He’d talked two girls into it, one for each of us. They were our good friends. Our parents still trusted us to have a co-ed sleepover. We were all just kids. I didn’t have enough testosterone to grow body hair or a peach-fuzz mustache. I had no desire yet, just peer pressure. It was nothing but a weird game of Doctor, which is good, because the real thing would have scared the shit out of me.
The fallout was bad enough, as it was. Not long after that, I started becoming aware of my church’s rules about sex, which had never much interested me before.
It was bad.
Having sex with someone outside of marriage was the worst possible thing you could do, and there was hell to pay for it. It would ruin your life, her life, both of your family’s lives, your church, your town, the United States of America — no one would escape God’s wrath. I remember hearing the lyrics, “I want to feel your body” from Samantha Fox’s song “Touch Me” on the radio and feeling dirty every time I thought about it.
Mom had come to this church looking for something to believe in. She’d lost my 20-year-old uncle to a mysterious death in his sleep. She’d grown disillusioned with the Catholic church of her childhood. Her and Dad’s marriage was strained. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to hurt her. I felt like I needed to take care of her, not hurt her. I felt guilty about playing Doctor with my friend. I wanted to tell Mom. But I couldn’t. I sat under unspoken judgment from her, from my church, and from God.
As a reward for getting good grades at the little Christian school run by our church, I got to go out to lunch one day with Brother Starch, our cowboy-booted, slick-haired, double-breasted-suit-wearing preacher, in his Acura with the leather seats. I had never ridden in a car like that. No one else in the church had a car like that. He stopped at the Highland Country Store in Exeter, N.H., I forget for what. At 9 years old, my idea of humor was to replace the first letters of words to make new words.
“Highland Country Hore … I mean, Store,” I said.
“Do you know what that word means, son?” the pastor asked, glaring at me.
“No,” I said, shrinking into myself. I’d never heard the word ‘whore.’
“Don’t you ever say that word again,” he barked. “That’s a very bad woman.”
Whoa! That sounded as horrible as one of Dad’s four-letter words! A year or so later, the pastor showed up with a brand-new white Corvette. People started asking questions. They discovered he’d been skimming the church treasury to buy the cars and renovate his family’s home. Meanwhile, the staff nursery workers had gone six weeks without a paycheck, and the pastor’s own wife had gone to the church’s food pantry for peanut butter. Brother Starch had also been sneaking off with his secretary. The pastor warned us kids not to listen to anything bad our parents had to say about him. We left the church, and it soon folded, putting an exclamation point on the pastor’s preaching about the destructive nature of sexual intercourse.
The name of that church was Grace.
Years later, when I came back from spring break as a sophomore at a Christian boarding school, I found out my roommate, a senior, was getting kicked out of school just months shy of graduation for having had sex with his girlfriend. This was dangerous stuff, could turn your life on a dime. What bothered me most was that the school administrators thought expulsion, exclusion, excommunication would guide him back into righteousness. I’d heard for years that premarital sex would ruin your life, but here it seemed not my roommate’s choice but others’ judgment was ruining his life.
Such legalism wasn’t confined to sex. God was an all-powerful, all-holy Judge who was keeping track of my every move, not to decide whether I would go to heaven or hell — Jesus took care of that on the cross — but whether I needed a carrot or a stick to guide me toward spiritual perfection and treasures in heaven.
In college I briefly dated another girl, Andrea, a singer and guitar player whom I dreamed of making beautiful music with. One night, we walked out to a pretty meadow behind the smelly campus pond where a previous crush had convinced me to go for quiet time with God. (I always thought it would have been a good place to make out with her). Andrea and I lay on a hillside looking up at the stars. I took her hand, and she said, in a flirty sort of way, that she was surprised that a resident assistant, a good boy like me, would break the rules like that. Holding hands made me dangerous.
At 21, 22 years old, my sexual peak, when other guys were sowing their wild oats, I was celibate. I wasn’t any different from hundreds of thousands of kids at fundamentalist and evangelical schools all over the country. We were afraid of normal adolescent experiences, and we learned to hide them, to lie — to our parents, our teachers, ourselves, whoever might be disappointed. They told us sex before marriage would distort our expectations for our future spouses. It would be just perfect, as long as we didn’t do anything to mess it up. So we stopped short of intercourse and orgasm — usually far short, trying both to become adults and to maintain spiritual purity at the same time. It was a tightrope, and one mistake could kill you.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. This post is adapted from his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. In addition to making his girlfriend feel bad about expressing her sexual needs, he also made her feel bad about listening to The Cranberries. This video, recorded at Wild Goose Festival where he presented this excerpt, is penance.